Reaching the JMT- Crabtree Meadow Basecamp

(Still Wednesday, August 19, 2015)

Welcome to the JMT! Upper Crabtree Meadow  

7:30 pm– I’m almost too tired to write.  I’m going to call this a 12 mile day with the hike out from my camping spot far away from the trail at Soldier Lake and my wandering back and forth for 15 minutes when I got back on the New Army Pass Trail and couldn’t figure out which direction to go. Maybe it’s 11 ½ miles… Who knows, it depends on which map or trail signs I follow – they all say something different.

53 decent over guyot where ran into trail crew and asked about wag bag
Trail on the North Side of Guyot Pass

After hiking for 10 hours through red fir and lodgepole pine woodlands, crossing drought depleted streams, hearing a crazy coyote kill, climbing 2000 feet up Guyot Pass where I experienced my first false summit at Guyot Flat and  finally climbing a gentle trail that meandered along Whitney Creek, I reached the John Muir Trail and Upper Crabtree Meadow!  It’s quite a sight: stretching from maybe half a mile to my left toward the sharp granite peaks near Mt. Whitney, to the edge of the forest I just climbed out of on my right. I breathed a sigh of relief. I made it! I can rest!

I was greeted by a crowded and bustling backpacker camp – obviously a Mt. Whitney base camp.   There are at least 20 – and maybe as many as 30 – tents tucked into the pine trees bordering the meadow as far as the eye can see.  It reminds me of a refugee camp (not that ‘I’ve ever been in a refugee camp, but I imagine it would look something like this- only with not as much expensive ultra-light gear). It was also a bit of a shock to my senses after being mostly alone for 3 days.

I was obviously late. Finding a private spot to pitch camp was going to be a challenge. I headed to my right toward the line of trees that marked the south edge of the meadow – there were only a couple of tents tucked away in the trees against the hill that dropped down to the trail on the edge of Whitney Creek, where women were bathing and hikers were filtering water. But way down on the southernmost tip, there was no one. It was a bit out in the open, but at least away from the crowd.

I finally settled on a flat spot tucked against the trees that spilled down a big hill toward Lower Crabtree Meadow.  I dropped my pack and started pulling all my stuff out: my bear can, tent, sleeping bag, Thermarest, and sleeping clothes. I was anxious to get set up.  I sat in the dirt nibbling on a Cashew Caramel Macro Bar while I organized my gear. I was happy with my spot and couldn’t figure out why I was the only one who thought of camping here.

I laid out my tent and as I was attaching the poles to the grommets I happened to catch sight of something at the tree line on the east side of the meadow that I’d missed while scouting for a campsite.  To my complete and utter horror I was looking directly in the face of a man  sitting on a wide-open, for- the-world-to-see outdoor toilet, no more than 25 yards away. He was just sitting there, wad of toilet paper in hand,  shrinking down on his wood-instead-of-porcelain throne trying to hide from me. But there was nowhere to hide. The only privacy this outdoor toilet lent were two crudely built walls on the OTHER SIDE of the toilet.  My camp was perfectly positioned to get a straight-on view. Well that answers the question why I’m the only one down here.

crabtree toilet
Outdoor toilet at Crabtree Meadow

I was mortified. How the fuck did I miss that?  I was so embarrassed (I can only imagine how he felt!). I felt like such a back-country campground rookie (like I was supposed to know there would be a toilet perched on a wooden stage in the middle of a wilderness campground! Sure there was a sign pointing in this direction, but I was expecting something a little more obvious!)

I quickly plopped my ass down with my back to him and pretended to fidget in my backpack for a good 15 minutes to give him plenty of time to finish what he was doing.  Then I haphazardly crammed my gear back in my pack and dragged it and my tent over to a new spot, BEHIND the toilet wall. I’m still close, but at least I won’t be watching people use it while I eat my Pad Thai.

I set up camp and took a walk to get water for dinner (up creek!) and explore the camp. I talked to a few people who confirmed they’re here to acclimate for their Whitney summit. I haven’t met anyone doing the whole JMT, they’ve just come in from the south (like me) and are out here for a few days to do Whitney.

climb toward whitney view of valley below
view toward Crabtree meadow from Whitney descent

I met a guy (Tom) who was sitting on the edge of the meadow near a camp with four tents eating dinner alone.  We struck up a conversation about the dozens of adorable marmots scurrying about in the meadow. I asked if he was heading to Whitney and he explained that his group is still on the mountain. He’d started out with them this morning but had to turn back at 12,000 feet because the elevation got the best of him.  He said he was too dizzy and short of breath to continue and “it wasn’t worth” his health and safety to push on. He tried to make light of it but his disappointment shone through as he tried too hard to convince me he was ok with it. I listened, told him “good for you for making that decision” and walked away thinking: Wow, Ok this Whitney climb is the real deal!  I hope that doesn’t happen to me!  That will NOT happen to me……Right???  

It never crossed my mind that I might not be able to summit Whitney (or finish this trip).  I tend to do things without overthinking them: forging ahead and working things out on the way….  Hell, preparing for this trip pushed my planning and organizational abilities to the limits with the food and the gear and the maps and the permits. But I never really considered I couldn’t do any part of it –  I’d just do it. (One of my favorite slogans!). Put one foot in front of the other and just go. I half-jokingly told my friends the only way I’m coming out before Happy Isles is by helicopter.  I don’t quit. Talking to Tom was the first time it dawned on me that there was a very real possibility I physically may not be able to climb Mt. Whitney.  That no matter how much my mind and stubbornness wanted to summit, my body may not allow me to. I couldn’t accept that and quickly put it out of my mind.

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crabtree camp 2 branded
The big rock that became my dinner spot at Crabtree Meadow

I’m back at my camp now leaning against a big rock about 20 feet from my tent on the edge of the trees that line the meadow,  eating dinner and watching excited and exhausted hikers get back from Whitney, campers carry their pots and Nalgene bottles to the creek for water and others languidly organize and tidy up their camps. I get curious looks and enthusiastic hellos from passersby on the way to the outdoor toilet. I’ve only seen two other solos here – and I’m the only solo woman.

I look around camp and soak in the vibe. I like it here.  There’s an excited and adventure-filled energy in the air.  I’m conscious of my feeling of belonging, despite being alone.  A warm contentment washes over me as I reflect on this. I’ve never felt like I belonged anywhere!  I’m happy. Content. And happy to be solo.

camp at Crabtree without the view of the toilet
Camp at Crabtree without the view of the toilet

Later –  It’s not quite dark yet, but I climbed into my tent to rest for my big day tomorrow. This will be my first night in my tent. It’s nice to be in here away from the crowd, and it’s cozy, but I think when I’m alone I’ll go back to no tent. I feel too cut off from nature.

Reflecting on my day,  I feel like I completed my first real hiking day; 12 miles, 10 hours and about 2000 feet in elevation – and it wasn’t easy. I’m still feeling the effects of the high altitude.  At 10,958 feet with a 40lb pack, Guyot pass was no walk in the park! I purposely did short days up until today to give myself plenty of time to acclimate before climbing Mt. Whitney. I hope I’m ready!

The trail was pretty desolate most of the day.  I only saw 3 people until about a mile out of lower Crabtree. It was also a day of wildlife sightings: the near-deadly coyote incident, mama doe and babies, a marmot (there are a lot here at camp) and another doe.

My body is feeling pretty good, except the muscle or tendon I strained behind my left knee when I slipped in the mud getting to camp at Soldier Lake yesterday.  It’s a recurring injury that I always tweak when I fall (and I fall on every backpacking trip).  It’s a little painful today, especially when I land on my left foot a certain way that twists it slightly. The tendonitis in my left foot is acting up too. But it’s not horrible, I can walk. It’s a good thing I brought lots of Ibuprofen!  Other than that I’m just feeling your run-of-the-mill tiredness. I wonder what I’ll feel like in a week?  Two weeks? Three? It’s only day three, I could be out here another twenty seven days!

I had to remind myself a few times today that this isn’t about rushing to a destination. It’s about experiencing every single moment this journey has to offer. I relished in my breaks; on the shore of Rock Creek, at the top of the rocky and picturesque Guyot Pass with it’s view of Whitney Meadow, and IN Crabtree Creek at lower Crabtree meadows. (I literally pulled off my hiking pants and sat on a big rock to soak my painful muscle/tendon. But when I spotted a couple having a nice picnic across the way, I slipped on my pants, grabbed my pack and headed down creek. I couldn’t find a big rock so I just plopped down in the icy cold creek!)

Foxtail Pines on Guyot Flat
Guyot Flat

At times, I find myself rushing: gotta get the miles in. Gotta get there by 2:00. When the fact is, getting to camp early is boring. Yesterday I got to camp at 1:00 and I was bored to tears all afternoon. Slow down. Enjoy the journey. This is why I gave myself 30 days to do this. I hope as the days pass, I shed the hustle and bustle mentality of real life and settle into nature’s rhythm – and my own hiking rhythm. I have time, I don’t need to rush.

Tomorrow is the day I (hopefully) summit Mt. Whitney!!!! It’ll be 15 miles round trip with over 4000 feet in elevation gain (and loss! I do have to come down…). The good news is, I only have to carry a day pack! Everyone’s been telling me to get up to the summit early before the smoke gets bad – usually by 1 or 2 in the afternoon. (I chose to hike the JMT the year half of California is on fire – and it’s definitely affecting air quality and views). I’ll shoot for leaving right after sunrise. That should put me on the summit around 11am.

Time to get some sleep. Tomorrow I climb to the top of the world (well the top of the lower 48 anyway!) I’m excited to get this done and start hiking the JMT!

Next – my climb up Mt. Whitney! 

The Scariest Moment of My Solo Hike

Day 3, 10 am. Jct. New Army Pass/Rock Creek and PCT!!!! (Still Wednesday, August 19, 2015)

HO-OLY SHIT!  HOLY FUCKING SHIT!  I just had the living crap scared out of me!

I was earnestly hiking along the New Army Pass trail, excited to get my first real 10 mile day under my belt and reach the John Muir Trail.  It was about 9am and the air was cool and the sun’s beams were still aspiring to break through the morning air, hazy with smoke and mist.  At 10,800 feet I was still in the midst of rugged alpine forest and feeling anxious to get through it: the forest scares me a little. I don’t like not being able to see around me.  I have to work at suppressing my imagination which exaggerates every noise and shadow and tries to convince me something will jump out from behind a tree or around the next bend or that I’m being preyed upon by wild eyes. I feel much safer in the granite fields above the tree line! Rock Creek Crabtree sign

When I approached my first Rock Creek crossing, I knelt down and splashed cool water on my face while I did a quick scan up and down the creek to find my best crossing point. The water was low, spanning about 5 feet across and babbling gently.  I crossed easily.

As I stepped across the shallow creek I thought I saw a flash of red dart through the thick forest on the other side. People! I got excited, I hadn’t seen anyone yet that morning and having company in the gloomy forest would have been comforting.

I reached the other side and looked around for the person in the red jacket I thought I’d seen. Nothing. Hmm, I guess the shadows and the trees are playing tricks on me.

day 3 view of soldier lake
The view toward Soldier Lake and Miter Basin as I hiked out on Morning 3

I spotted a big rock with a couldn’t-pass-up natural bench cut out and decided it was the perfect spot to take a break and have a snack. Just as I unclipped the waist belt of my pack to sit back and relax I heard a loud muffled THUD behind me, like something very large hitting the forest floor. A bear!  I spun around and visually examined the trees and rocks for its source.  Nothing. Ok it must have just been a widow maker (a giant pine cone falling from the tree).  I leaned back against the rock, pack still on and tried to relax while never taking my eyes off the forest from which the THUD had come.

I sucked water from my Camelback drip tube, ate a handful of homemade gorp and popped another Orange Stinger Energy Chew into my mouth. A hollow rat-tat-tat echoed high up in the trees in front of me. It startled me a little before I realized it was just a woodpecker.  (Maybe it’s Woody! That would explain the red I saw – oh boy, my nerves are making me a little campy!!!)

And then: crunch, snap, crunch…  the undergrowth of the forest floor was being crushed under the weight of something behind a giant rock about 20 feet in front of me. What the hell? Then it stopped as suddenly as it started. I convinced myself it was just a deer or squirrel and carried on with my break. Then suddenly the finally-silent  forest came alive again —

YIIIP! YIP-YIP-YIP!

It was a high pitched bark – like from a little dog – just a few hundred feet to my left in the direction of the forested New Army Pass trail. Yay! Someone’s coming – and they have a dog!  (Oh I miss Capone) Maybe it’s the mystery person in red.

And just as I realized – Wait, dogs aren’t allowed out……
YELP. YEEEEELLLP! YEEEEEELP.
Wow, is the dog hurt?
YEEEELP. YIPYIPYIPYIP. HOOOOWWWLLL! HOW-HOW-HOWWWWL!

And then all hell broke loose.
Screeching, yelping, yipping, barking,  and the ugliest most awful blood curdling maniacal wild chorus of howling I’d ever heard.
Coyotes!?!  YES! – A whole freaking giant pack of them!?! What the hell?? This was nothing like any coyote howls I’d ever heard laying in my tent at night! HOLY SHIT!
I sat frozen on my rock bench, orange Stinger stuck in my throat. Listening. Is one hurt? Is it being killed? Are they hunting? — ME???  —Oh shit are they hunting ME???  OhShitWhatDoIDo? 

It sounded like some crazy eerie coyote sacrifice. Holy fuck – and they’re close! Too close.  I stood up and looked in the direction the sounds were coming from. My eyes strained to search the forested hill in front of me and the meadow on my left  – where I half expected to see a dozen rabid coyotes charging toward me – for signs of movement. It sounded like they were no more than a few hundred feet away.
YIPYIPYIP. YEEEELP. YIPP. YIPPP. YIP-YIP-YIP-YIP. HOW-WULLLLL!
I crammed my energy chews and gorp back into the side pockets of my pack, buckled up and got ready to walk briskly the hell out of there (I know not to run when being hunted by wild animals but walking fast is ok, right?).

Oh NO. No No No No No!  The horrible coyote hunt/kill/sacrifice was happening right in the direction of my trail. What do I do? Do I wait? (For them to come and eat me next…? No thank you!). Let them finish and then go? But what if that just gives them time to come for me?  I remind myself: Coyotes don’t hunt humans. But what if these coyotes DO?

COYOTES. DON’T. EAT. PEOPLE! I tried desperately to convince myself, which isn’t an easy thing to do when you’re alone in the wilderness and haven’t seen another human up close in over 18 hours.

YEEEELP. YEEEELP! YEEELLLLLP! YIPYIPYIP. YEEEELP. YIPP. YIPPP. YIP-YIP-YIP-YIP. HOWLLL-HOWLLL-HOW-WUL! soldier lake view with logo

Nothing out here wants to eat me… Nothing out here wants to hurt me I used my own familiar chant to combat my terror as I inched closer to the howling hillside while the eerie corybantic coyote chorus echoed through the trees like some beastly nightmarish hell-song. What if the trail leads straight up the hill toward them? What do I do then? I can’t just sit here and wait for them to discover me. I continued toward the hillside in the direction of the pack, obsessively scanning the hills for any signs of movement and scouting my trail, trying to see where it led.  Please lead me away from them. Please, please please.  (Yes, I was pleading with the trail gods.)

The frenzied death curdling barks and howls were slowing to an occasional YIP-YIP. YELP! HOW—WULLLLL!  I didn’t know whether to be relieved or more freaked out.

And then I saw it – thank you trail gods!  The trail veered off to the right, in the opposite direction of the blood-thirsty yippers.  I took the sharp right away from the now silent pack of (what my mortified imagination now made out to be) deadly human eating coyotes as quickly as possible. Their silence was no relief. Great, now they’re silently stalking me, closing in, and positioning themselves for the attack. Don’t run. Whatever you do, don’t run!  Oh my god, I wanted to run!

Rock Creek Lunch Break brandedIt took every ounce of self-control to walk and not break into a sprint. I never hiked a mile with 40lbs on my back so fast in my life. I was still obsessively turning around to make sure I wasn’t being followed and searching the woods around me looking for signs they were hunting me. I imagined a dozen barbarous coyote eyes on me at all times. I tried to reason with myself: I hear coyotes all the time when I’m out. They aren’t going to hurt me. Coyotes don’t eat humans. Coyotes don’t eat humans, coyotes don’t… but I’m alone, separated from my non-existent pack. I’m easy prey. Why the fuck did I decide to hike alone? I suddenly felt very vulnerable – and a little bit crazy.

My inner voices went into  full-on battle mode as I hiked: one wanting to comfort me, the other criticizing and keeping me in a state of fear.   Coyotes are afraid of humans. They were howling to warn others of my presence, that’s all. Yeah ok….nice try! Just keep walking.  All I wanted was to get to the Rock Creek junction. There’s something about a junction – I don’t know if it’s the human-made marker or what – but junctions give me a sense of safety and of not being quite so alone. My critical inner voice is relentless in trying to keep me in a freaked out state. Taunting me:  like a single wood post is going to protect you from a pack of ravenous human eating coyotes! Face it, you’re going to die out here...  My optimistic voice: maybe there will be other hikers there resting and waiting for others to catch up.  And there’s a ranger station there. Just go!

I was racing along the trail at record-breaking speed (for a backpacker) still frenetically scanning the woods around me for signs of beady coyote eyes or any movement.  I was still out of breath from my near death encounter (ok, maybe not really that close to death, but when you’re in it, try convincing yourself of that!) when about a mile down the trail something darted across the path a few yards in front of me. I gasped and stopped dead in my tracks. Oh shit, they’re surrounding me. This is it. I’m gonna to die. I braced myself for my end…

I think I literally laughed out loud when I realized it was  just a mama doe and her two adorable fawns. One of the baby deer, obviously as surprised to see me as I it, stopped dead in my path to observe me.  We both stood frozen on the trail, 10 feet apart curiously studying each other and luxuriating in the relief that the other wasn’t a coyote. I couldn’t help but appreciate how beautifully fragile it was. Awesome! Real coyote food!  I’m safe (I wonder if baby fawn thought the same of me!). As if reading my mind she took off into the forest.Have fun little fawn and watch out for the coyotes!”  I yelled as I hiked on toward Rock Creek Station at a  more relaxed and comfortable pace, feeling safer knowing there is real coyote food nearby.

It’s about 10:30 now. I’m at the junction of the PCT and the New Army Pass Trail relaxing on the grassy shore of Rock Creek.  I’m just sitting here soaking up the sun and enjoying not being coyote breakfast. I’ve soaked my feet and splashed fresh icy-cold creek water on my face and arms to wash the sweat and fear off my skin.   Now I’m trying to enjoy my lunch of Justin’s peanut butter and honey on Ener-G Foods wheat free, gluten free, flax crackers  that taste like cardboard. I brought them because they don’t crumble in my bear can – that should have been my first clue about taste! At least the peanut butter somewhat masks it.

I can’t believe it’s only 10:30 and I’ve already hiked 4 ½ miles!  Just 6 1/2 to go to get to Crabtree

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For more info about Coyote callings check out this interesting article from Adirondack Almanac : Coyotes: Decoding Their Yips, Barks, and Howls.

Scroll down for more stories…  

Day 3: Sleepless nights and break ups

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

6 am at Soldier Lake

I slept a little bit last night. Not a lot, but more than the first night. After finishing my tea, I settled into my sleeping bag around 7:00 and laid awake until the sky turned black and the stars shone bright.  I finally dozed off at some point but tossed and turned through the night. Unlike my first night at Chicken Spring Lake there wasn’t a single scratch, scurry or footstep. The wilderness was quiet except for the sound of fresh mountain water traveling through the gorge, echoing against its walls as it cascaded over the rocky creek that feeds Soldier Lake. This somehow made me feel safe.

I was wide awake hours before sunrise watching the stars. I was lucky enough to witness a few meteors dart across the sky which always excites me like a little kid.  Independence Day is my favorite holiday and seeing shooting stars is like watching nature’s fireworks show.  I laid awake until the eastern sky ever so slowly began to transform from the black of night to dark blue. Is that sunrise? I’d turn over, cover my head, and peek out again a few minutes later. Yes, it’s lighterSunrise!  I was relieved that I could get up and make coffee soon. The nights can be long when you’re sprawled out on the hard cold ground. I was restless and ready to stop trying to sleep.

You think about a lot of things when you lay awake alone it the wilderness in the wee hours of morning.  And as I snuggled up all warm and cozy in my 24 degree down bag searching the sky for my own private fireworks show, I thought of Brad, the man I’d broken up with earlier in the year (a 5 month relationship- a record since my divorce!).  I thought about all the reasons we didn’t work out; all the things he is and isn’t and I wanted him to be. My gut swelled with contempt.  I don’t want to have this feeling out here – this is where I find peace and serenity, not contempt. It’s time too find a way to let this go.

near soldier lake
near soldier lake

My alone-ness enveloped me in the cold morning air as I reflected on the difficult work I’ve done over the last several years to get to a place where I’m ok with not being in a relationship – more than ok, really. I love my independence – a sharp contrast from the first few years after my divorce when I joined every dating site, and treated dating like an Olympic sport that I had to train for. My first year out of my marriage I must have gone on 30 first dates. I wasn’t very good at screening at first  and had a lot of very uncomfortable and awkward coffees.  (Oh, the stories I could tell… )

Brad and I had known each other for a couple years. We’d seen each other around but hadn’t really spent any time alone together. The month I decided to close my Match.com account and stop actively searching for the “One” he asked me out.  I explained that I wasn’t really interested in dating anyone and suggested we just be friends. But he was persistent and I finally agreed to go on a date with him a couple months later.

Brad is a nice guy and would have done anything for me.  But the outcome was the same as it always was: the relationships I attract seem to smother and mute me. They extinguish my fire and tame me. I knew I had to get out or risk losing myself again.  Sure, it was the right decision and I don’t regret it. But how many relationships will I have to walk away from?  Will I ever find someone who will inspire, energize and lift me up? The one who really gets me?

My friends say I  just haven’t found the “One” yet.   I believe it’s quite possible there just isn’t a “One” for me.  I’ve come to terms with that.  I’m even ok with it despite living in a world that tells me I’m supposed to get married, have kids, get the good job, buy the big house, get buried in debt, and live for that 2 week vacation.  Honestly, I’ve never subscribed to any of that -but I chased it anyway because I thought it’s what I was supposed to do.  The reality is when I got it, I felt emptier and less fulfilled than ever.

View of Chicken Spring lake (day 1)
View of Chicken Spring lake (day 1)

So then, why did I spend decades subscribing to the myth that I’m nobody unless I’m coupled?  I thought of many reasons (I won’t bore you with that much info) but frankly, one of the biggest is because I was born a woman. After all doesn’t society, media, and advertising tell us we should be obsessed with finding a man? Aren’t we groomed from birth to believe in Prince Charming and Fairy Tale weddings? They tell us if we wear the right clothes, the right shoes, the right makeup, if we’re ladylike, fun, easy going (not a “nag”), and flirty but not slutty we’ll land our Prince Charming!  I remember everyone telling me at 17 years old that I’d change my mind about not wanting to get married and have kids because, “All women want that. Just wait til your clock starts ticking.” Well come to find out, I have no clock and if I do, it certainly never ticked.

Once I came to terms with the fact that I don’t NEED a man my life, I realized I actually LIKE being alone. I love traveling alone, backpacking alone, going to the movies on a Wednesday afternoon alone. And while I also love the company of my friends who are fun and easy to be with – it’s not a requirement. It’s liberating to know that not having someone to do things with doesn’t hold me back.  How many people don’t live out their dreams and goals because they’re afraid to do it alone? Not me. Not anymore.

And yet…. as darkness turned to light this morning I had a stark realization: despite all those hours of therapy and all my talk of liberation, strength, and independence, the contempt I felt for Brad earlier had nothing to do with him.  Brad is perfectly fine just the way he is – he’s just not the right One for me. (There were a lot of reasons we didn’t work out, but when he confessed to me that REI “scared” him, I knew we had no future together – true story!) No, that feeling in my gut wasn’t contempt, it was about me still lamenting, why isn’t there a One for me? Why am I so different?  Tons of women would love to find a man like Brad. Why not me?  Sure, I may not need a man in my life, but it sure would be nice to someday find the One who really gets me.  How cool would it be to have someone to share this amazing adventure with?  I can’t even imagine… A sadness swept over me as I pondered why this has eluded me all my life and yet seems so easy for others.

Getting to a place in life where you realize you’re better off alone than spending it with the wrong people (who disrespect, drain, and deplete you without giving anything back) may be liberating, but it’s not always easy.

The sky was getting lighter and I was growing more restless laying there thinking about all this so I rolled over to check the time on my phone. 5 am! Yay, morning! I unzipped myself from my bag, did my stretches, put on my headlamp, and made coffee. It’s 6 now,  my oatmeal is soaking, and I’m getting ready to pack up to begin my hike to Rock Creek/Crabtree Meadow and the John Muir Trail!

I’m excited, it’s going to be a great day!

Read about my scariest day on the trail! 

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Day 2- Chicken Spring Lake to Soldier Lake

“How backwards and removed from ourselves we have become that returning to nature is perceived as courageous and dangerous.

 –  Carolyn Higgins

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

6:00 am: It’s my first morning waking up on the trail (the Pacific Crest Trail!) and it’s surprisingly warm (guessing around 55 degrees).  I’m still lounging in my sleeping bag sipping my hot coffee and waiting for the sun to fully rise over the eastern peaks behind me to bring Chicken Spring Lake back to life. I’m basking in my freedom and beaming with gratification that all I have to do for the next 29 days is walk and experience all that Mother Earth has to offer.

I’m excited about the adventure that awaits me. There is so much to experience and learn! It’s only Day Two and I’m already learning new things! Like making sure my map is safe and secure in my pocket at all times, not drinking an entire liter of water before bed, and watching where I make my bed.

sunrise at chicken spring lake morning 1 on trail
Sunrise at Chicken Spring Lake morning one on trail

I didn’t sleep very well, but I’m not too disappointed. It gave me the opportunity to scan the starry sky all night for meteors from the tail end of the Leonid meteor shower. I only saw a few small ones (a bit disappointing in that regard) but I can’t complain too much. After all, I got to gaze at the stars all night!!!

At dinner I felt a migraine coming on again (woke up with one yesterday). I decided maybe I wasn’t hydrated enough so I guzzled an entire liter of water. I swear I must have gotten up to pee nine times – no exaggeration – NINE times (I lost count after six). Every time I felt like I was about to drift off my bladder would punch me awake with that urgent “I have to pee” ache. Ughhh. I have to get up AGAIN!  Lesson learned: Do NOT drink a ton of water after dinner.

And if it wasn’t my bladder, it was something busily scurrying and scratching beneath my pillow (made up of my empty backpack with my Sea to Summit inflatable pillow on top of it, propped against a big rock).  At first I just laid there thinking to myself, I must be hearing things. My imagination is getting the best of me, there’s nothing moving around right underneath my head. I’d ignore it and squeeze my eyes shut trying to race my full bladder and the imaginary noise to sleep.   OH SHIT!  The frenzied scurrying would jolt me up again. What the hell? I’d rearrange my backpack and pillow on the rock, grab my headlamp and scan the area around me. Seeing nothing, I’d convince myself the noises were from my backpack shifting and settling beneath my head. I’d lay back down only to be jarred again by the noise a few minutes later. This went on for a good hour; I’d shift my pillow to prove the noises were a figment of my imagination, lay down and get comfy, and finally start to doze off only to be jarred again by scurrying beneath my head.  I started to think maybe the noise wasn’t so imaginary and finally turned on my headlamp to perform a thorough investigation, tearing my backpack away and examining the rock it had been resting on. Oh my god. I laughed out loud as my light beamed directly on a hole in the sandy ground beneath the rock. It was obviously home to a mouse or some other rodent-like critter.  I was blocking its door! The poor thing was trying to get out but had to dig through my backpack to do so!  

I had to laugh at myself for not being smart enough to check around the rock before making my bed there – well of course there’s wildlife out here, silly!  I should probably watch for that in the future.  Lesson Learned: Do not sleep on critters’ porches.

My second spot on Chicken Spring NOT on a mouse hole

I slid my Tyvek ground sheet with all my bedding on it across the sand a few feet to make a new bed, carefully scouting the area to make sure I wouldn’t be preventing some poor rodent from leaving it’s home to do its nocturnal nut gathering.  The last thing I wanted was to wake up with a mouse scurrying across my face or tangled in my hair.

My new location provided a new noise: scurrying, rustling, and scratching around in my wadded up tent on the ground next to me. Ah screw it, at least it’s not under my head. 

I think I finally dozed off for a few minutes only to be awakened by what sounded like footsteps. Something was walking around my camp not five feet away! I held my breath and froze for a few minutes so I could hear without my noisy breathing getting in the way. Yep, something is walking around over there. It sounded like deer, so I just rolled over and tried to go back to sleep.

As comfortable as I like to think I’ve become sleeping in the wilderness alone, every little noise still causes me to tense up and hold my breath so I can listen and investigate with all my senses while I tell myself, nothing out here wants to hurt me. Nothing wants to eat me. They’re just going about their business like they do every night.  This has become my solo-hiking “I’m ok, Nothing is going to attack me” mantra to calm my nerves in scary situations.

view of solder lake from meadow
view of solder lake from meadow

I learned this trick when I was backpacking alone in Buck’s Wilderness last year.  It was my second night out and I’d hiked cross country to Gold Lake, a picturesque and remote glacially carved basin filled with cobalt blue runoff. I’d just lay down in my tent for the night when I heard a bear frolicking in the lake a couple hundred yards away. I knew it was a bear because it was making a ton of noise walking through the reeds on the shore (CRUUUNCH….CRUUUUNCH…..CRUUUUNCH) and splashing in the water (SPLASH! PLUNK….PLUNK) and because I’d stepped over very fresh bear poop on the way in.

Before heading into Buck’s Wilderness alone I thought I was a pretty experienced backpacker. Even though I’d only been on one solo trip before, I’d been on plenty of trips with others.  However, as I lay vulnerably alone in my tent with a bear cavorting just yards away I quickly realized that I in fact, didn’t know shit.

Oh-my-god-what-do-I-do? Do I be quiet? Make noise? Stay still? Pack up all my shit and leave? What if he comes into camp? What if he starts messing with my bear canister? Would I scare him off? Or let him bat it around until he gets tired and gives up?  Oh great, then I’ll have a frustrated and pissed off bear in my camp. Oh-my-god-oh-shit-what-do-I-do?

After mentally running through a thousand different scenarios, none of which ended well for me, I decided my best bet was to cordially let Mr. Bear know I was there. My hope was that this thoughtful gesture would help forge some kind of understanding between us…

So I unzipped my bag, left the (perceived) safety of my tent and walked the 100 feet across camp to grab my soloist pot yelling “”Hey Bear. Hey Bear. I’m Here Bear. I just want you to know I’m here. I’m not going to hurt you!” And then I had a brilliant idea – —- “I’M VEGAN!!!” I yelled into the darkness toward the bear sounds. In my moment of panic I thought if he knew I was vegan he’d be more understanding and less likely to eat me. (As if a bear knows what a vegan is, geesh!)

When I reached my pot and metal Spork I banged them together as loudly as I could and continued to yell, “HEY BEAR! HI BEAR! I’M HERE BEAR! JUST LETTIN’ YOU KNOW I’M HERE!!!”  He’d stop doing whatever it is bears do in the middle of the night (aka: 9pm lol)  for a few minutes and I’d think, whew, it worked. I scared him off.  But within minutes he’d be going about his bear business again; frolicking in the water and tromping in the reeds.

Camp at soldier Lake
Camp at soldier Lake

I climbed back into my tent and continued clanking and yelling for a while, feeling slightly silly for sitting in my tent by myself in the middle of the night on Gold Lake in Buck’s Wilderness clanking a Spork against a pot and yelling to a bear “I’m vegan! Really I don’t eat animals – so you don’t have to hurt me!”

Each attempt to scare him off only served to temporarily quiet Mr. Bear so I finally gave up, laid my head down, wrapped myself in my sleeping bag and stayed alert in case he decided to return my cordiality and welcome me to the neighborhood with a surprise visit.  At some point I finally realized he had no interest in me, he was just doing what he probably does every single night, whether I’m there or not. That’s when I started soothing myself by telling myself over and over: bears don’t eat people. He doesn’t want to hurt me. He’s as afraid of me as I am him. Nothing out here wants to hurt me. Nothing out here wants to eat me.  I was eventually able to relax and go to sleep with the not-so-soothing backdrop of Mr. Bear doing his thing.

This mantra comforts me whenever I hear noises and start feeling nervous – and last night, hearing footsteps 5 feet from my head was no different. Nothing out here wants to hurt me. Nothing out here wants to eat me.

I truly believe nothing out here does want to hurt me. The incidents of black bears – or even cougars – attacking humans are so rare (and it’s usually because the human is being stupid or unaware). This is their territory, we have to respect it, be prepared, and pay attention. I know as long as I’m smart, alert, and aware I’ll most likely be safe. But if I happen to run into that one crazy bear who has his heart set on attacking a human that day, then so be it. It must be my time to go.  And I’m ok with that.  Frankly I’d rather die in the wilderness doing what I love than slipping in the tub or having a stroke sitting on the couch eating cookies and watching Les Stroud live out my Survivorman fantasies.

But all is good, I survived my first night on the trail!

The sun is fully up. It’s time to eat my oatmeal with protein powder, get packed up, and hit the trail. I’m heading 6 miles to Soldier Lake today via the PCT and the Siberian Pass Trail – 6 miles closer to Rock Creek where I pick up JMT and head to Mt. Whitney!

I’m still feeling the elevation. Just walking the 100 feet or so to the water is more demanding on my muscles and lungs than it would be at sea level. Other than the breathing and some slight dizziness when I stand up it’s not too bad – no nausea or anything like that.  I suspect I’ll feel it for several days.  Luckily there won’t be a lot of elevation gain today – it should be an easy day.

Camp at Soldier Lake, night two

Afternoon on Soldier Lake

I got here at about 12:30 – not bad. Minus breaks, I did 6 miles in about 3 hours. I’ll take that for my second day out. (Little did I know it wasn’t going to get much better than that!) And like magic, almost exactly 24 hours after starting yesterday I could breathe! Suddenly my pack felt lighter and every step easier. It also wasn’t as smoky this morning as it was yesterday.  I’m sure that helped.

I’ve been here a couple hours and have set up camp, soaked my feet, thought about swimming, but it’s really not warm enough (I’m already over the whole adventure of jumping in freezing mountain lakes just for the sake of it), and ate lunch (powdered hummus which was surprisingly delicious and Mary’s multi-seed crackers). I’m camped across the lake from all the well-used campsites that are mostly empty now because it’s early, but I suspect will fill up later. My spot is small, but quiet and private. The faint path from the popular side of the lake leads directly through my site and to a soggy meadow spilling out from a rocky gorge on the other side. To the left of the path is the small lake and to the right a rocky cliff covered with trees and brush overlooking on my campsite. I had to tromp through a soggy meadow and ankle deep mud at times to get here, but it’s got what I wanted: solitude.

Relaxing on soldier lake- too cold to swim

I took a walk out to the meadow to explore the gorge where the stream that feeds the lake comes from. It looks like the perfect place for bears to hang out. I might be a little scared tonight – maybe being over here all by myself wasn’t such a good idea. (Nothing out here wants to hurt me.).

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After dinner about 6:30 pm:  I am so happy with how my homemade dinners turned out. Last night was white beans and cabbage and tonight sweet potato and lentil curry. Very yummy.

Now I’m sitting on the granite slab perched about 5 feet above my site overlooking Soldier Lake sipping my chamomile tea. I took what I hope is Benadryl to help me sleep tonight and not be afraid.  The smoke is back. I wonder how the highway 120/Lee Vining fire is doing?  I’m also thinking about Capone and hoping he’getting as acclimated to his environment as I am to mine. I’m sure he’s settled in and having fun. I do miss him.

Read tomorrow morning’s entry: Sleepless nights and Breakups

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Day 1- CottonWood Pass to Chicken Spring Lake

Day 1 Trailhead at HS Meadows
Here I go! Day 1 Trailhead at Horseshoe Meadows

Monday, August 17, 2015

Cottonwood Pass! I can see Cottonwood Pass! How many times over the last 7 months have those two words crossed my thoughts, flowed from my fingertips, and slipped through my lips as I shared my plans with people both on and off line.  I’d ask on Facebook “I’m taking Cottonwood Pass out of Horseshoe Meadows, has anyone done that?” and  tell my backpacking buddies, ” Yes, I’m starting at Cottonwood Pass, 22 miles South of Mt Whitney”.   All full of anticipation and excitement,  I’d long for the day my feet would carry me over that promised land of Cottonwood Pass –  the gateway to my JMT journey.

And today, as I passed a fellow hiker who asked me which trail we were on I got to say, “wecottonwood pass trail‘re on the Cottonwood Pass trail. Look over there, THAT is Cottonwood Pass!”

Cottonwood Pass! It slid off my tongue and through my lips so smoothly – as if I owned it. As if Cottonwood Pass was sacred land that had been in my family for generations and was a part of me.

As the day elapsed my feet took me where my thoughts, voice, and fingers had ventured in name only for months. They carried me through the velvety green Horseshoe Meadow, through lodgepole pine forests,  and  up twelve hundred feet to the 11, 200 foot Cottonwood Pass, making my dream a reality.

And now, I’m one day and 5 miles closer to the John Muir Trail.

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At camp – night one

I finally hit the trail around 10:30 am after picking up my permit at the Eastern Sierra Visitor’s Center, eating a hearty breakfast of a veggie omelet without cheese, potatoes, dry rye toast, and surprisingly decent black coffee (the one cheat I allow in my vegan diet is eggs from time to time- they are so full of protein and other great nutrients. I figured I’d need all the nutritional help I could get for the journey ahead) at the Seasons Cafe in Lone Pine, and driving the long windy road up several thousand feet to the trail-head. I parked at the wrong parking lot and had to walk along the road about 1/4 mile to another parking lot and the trail-head.  I got there and realized I’d lost my map, so had to walk half way back to my car before I found it lying on the side of the road. Wow, I’m off to a great start, I thought and  vowed to keep a closer eye on my important stuff – which, when you’re carrying your life on your back, is just about everything.

With the lost map incident and my parking lot blunder I ended up hiking about 5 miles today,  slowly making my way up and over Cottonwood Pass through forests of lodgepole pines, past trickling streams and wide-open late-season, drought depleted  yellow-green meadows.  The elevation is a bitch, I felt it as soon as I got out of my car at the Horseshoe Trees at Chick Spring lakeMeadow trail-head (OMG I can’t believe I’m actually here! How many times did I think about Horseshoe Meadow? And now, sadly, it’s a memory.). Every step was onerous and heavy.  And to make matters worse the thin mountain air is polluted with smoke from the Cabin Fire just 8 miles east in Sequoia National Forest, making it even more difficult to breathe.  I’m glad I decided to take it slow the first few days.  I’m only at 11,200 feet, Whitney is 14, 500 feet. I’ll need the extra days to acclimate before I tackle that climb.

After 4 hours of hiking I crested the last rocky hill, getting my first view of my Day One destination – Chicken Spring Lake.  It’s a small crystal clear mountain lake nestled in a  small cirque surrounded by sheer granite cliffs on the opposite side and scattered with rocks and the mystical and rare foxtail pines on this side. It’s perfect!

As I worked my way along the path toward the lake I was disappointed to discover I wouldn’t have it all to myself. There were two or three other tents scattered around the shore. I walked upon a promising site but soon realized it had already been claimed by a man I found standing next to his pack propped against a rock eating an energy bar. We said our hellos and introduced ourselves, his name is Scott. He  told me the two women down by the water were with him and they were headed to Mt. Whitney.  We made small talk for a few minutes while his friends hung out lakeside trying to muster the courage to jump into what we surmised by their shrieks, to be pretty frigid waters.  He asked where I was headed and when I told him, “Yosemite” a look of shock flashed across his face and he said, “Wow! That’s impressive!” I never know what to say to that. It doesn’t feel impressive to me, it’s just walking… Besides, he should have seen what a mess I was two days ago! I said thank you and wrapped up the conversation so I could move on and find my home for the night.

Cowboy camping on Chicken Spring Lake near Cottonwood Pass
Cowboy camping on Chicken Spring Lake near Cottonwood Pass

Several hundred yards away around some clumps of trees, I found a  flat sandy spot that lent me enough privacy. I dropped my pack and immediately headed down to the water to test it out. I wanted to get my first swim in and wash the trail dust off me before the sun dropped too low.  I realized Scott’s companions had good reason to shriek, the water was pretty damn cold. But I’m on an adventure! I wasn’t going to let a little cold water stop me! I stripped down to my underwear and cami and dove in. It wasn’t too bad actually. I swam around for a while before getting out to sit in the sun to dry off. Once I was dry I got dressed, filled my Camelback bladder and Nalgene bottle and took a walk around the lake to explore and take some pictures.

my fave tree chicken spring
My favorite foxtail at Chicken Spring Lake

I’m now sprawled out on the sandy ground wedged among the rocks and oxtails a couple hundred feet from shore.  There’s supposed to be the tail end of a meteor shower tonight and it’s a gorgeous evening so far, so I’m going to cowboy camp.  I’m heating water to rehydrate my homemade dinner of white beans and cabbage, journaling, and taking time to  look around and soak in my surroundings.  I’m in awe of these magnificent foxtails; so barren and ancient looking.  Foxtails are said to reach 3000 years old,   I can only imagine the things they’ve seen. There is one about 20 feet from my bed that is so majestic, sparse, and simple.  I’ve decided it’s my favorite.

The sun is setting over the sheer rocky cliffs on the other side of the lake and I’m enjoying the scenery as the fading sunlight continually changes the landscape around me. I breathe in the fresh air and think of the journey ahead. At last I’m excited. I’m here and it feels like home!

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T-1 Days – One More Day! (The Drive to Yosemite)

Sunday August 16, 2015

6:30 am

The day is finally here. Why am I not more excited? I want to feel exhilarated! And ecstatic!!! But instead I feel kind of sad and heavy.  Oh, this must be that “fear” thing I hear others speak of!

Capone
Capone

I miss Capone already and I’m worried about him. Dropping him off at Camp Four Paws (aka: “Puppy Club-Med” because I could have traveled to Europe for a week on what I’m paying to board him there) was hard. He didn’t want to go with them and I could hear him barking and crying as I drove away. And even though I know he’ll be getting nature hikes,  regular exercise, lots of loving, and treats, it breaks my heart to leave him for 30 days. He probably thinks I abandoned him. What if something happens to him while I’m gone? What if he’s not here when I get back? He’s not getting any younger… Oh, I have to stop thinking like this. He’ll be fine. He’ll be fine. He’ll be fine. I’ll just keep telling myself that until I believe it.

I’ve had so many emotions welling up the past few days. I had no idea how hard this would be. I’ve even had a fleeting thought of bailing. Just quitting before I even start. I could just stay home and have a relaxing vacation here. And then my inner dialogue kicks in:  Stay home and do what? Watch TV? You’d be bored in an hour and you’d hate yourself forever for quitting.  And the resolve comes back:  If I’m this scared, this must be a really big fucking deal! There is no way I’m quitting.  Just breathe and keep moving forward. 

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10 pm or so at the Dow Villa Motel in Lone Pine

What  a day! After my 3 1/2 hour drive to Yosemite, I discovered that Hwy 120 is closed at 395 because of a fire (another fire, half of California is in flames- stupid drought!). So much for my plans to hitchhike or take a bus to Lone Pine! I had to drive another 6 hours via Bakersfield and Visalia to get to Lone Pine.  I didn’t get here until about 9:30 pm. I’m exhausted. But now I have my car so I can go pick up my permit in the morning and drive myself to the trail-head and worry about getting back down here next month after my hike.  The good news is, there’s nothing like a little challenge to get me out of a funk and out of my head. With all the challenges today I forgot all about my anxiety and fear. Whatever the trail has in store for me – bring it. I got this!

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T-2 Days… What the Hell Was I Thinking?

Saturday August 15, 2015

I can’t believe it’s finally time. After seven months of planning, preparing, reading, grilling my more experienced backpacking friends or information, taking REI wilderness survival and compass reading classes,  and gathering all the advice and tips from Facebook groups that I can fit into my brain, tomorrow I begin my adventure. The plan is to drive to Yosemite Valley where I’ll park my car at the Curry Village trail-head parking lot  and find my way (by thumb or bus) to the Dow Villa Motel in  Lone Pine.  From there I’ll hitchhike to the Horseshoe meadow trail-head on Monday morning and hike 4 miles and 1200 feet over Cottonwood pass to Chicken Spring Lake to begin my 30 day John Muir Trail journey. It’s real. It’s happening. Holy shit… What was I thinking?

Resupply bucket prep
Resupply bucket prep

I have a sinking fluttery feeling in my gut. I’m actually nervous! Me –with my self-proclaimed “unhealthy absence of fear”!!!  Not so much I guess,  I’m scared shitless right now. Really, I’m about to lose my shit.

I feel alone and nervous. How the hell am I going to handle 30 days alone in the wilderness if I leave feeling alone? All the work I’ve done over the last 6 years; all those lonely days and nights learning that it’s better to be alone than to be with people who drain me or drag me down, or that it’s better to sit in the nothingness and the pain than to crawl back in the bottle or the bag or the package of cookies … it has all led me here. But seriously. Wtf was I thinking?

Am I really ready to spend 30 days alone in the wilderness? – Without Capone (my 10 year old Rottweiler/Lab mix and sometimes backpacking partner)??? Oh my god, I’m gonna have a heart attack. Seriously, I can’t breathe…

I have a strange feeling cleaning my house, updating my advance health directive, and making sure my final wishes are known to my emergency contact. Why do I feel like I’m not coming back? This sinking feeling…. Like my stomach is about to fall out through my soon-to-be aching swollen feet. What have I gotten myself into?

(Talking to myself): Ok.. Take a breath.. Breathe.. in and out.. sloooowly.. Breathe… You know you aren’t going to backout.  Quitting is not an option so just breathe.

This is the same feeling I had before leaving the house to skydive. Preparing for the “what-if” is normal – and responsible, right??? This is not a walk in the park – this is Two. Hundred. Fifty. Miles.  ALONE!

To myself: Do you get it now? This is a big fucking deal. If I wasn’t scared I’d be crazy. It’s OK. It’s going to be OK. Just keep moving forward.. And remember to breathe…

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